We were up unusually early today, so early in fact that when we went to the Glass Works for breakfast, the place wasn’t yet open! We had coffee and porridge at Tinderbox in the N1 Centre and then went across the road to Sainsbury’s and dealt with our week’s shopping. There was still plenty of the day left: what should we do with it?
Tigger had for a while wanted to see Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. We started off thither but encountered one of those distractions that often conspire to lure us from our path.
The distraction was an exhibition called Malicious Damage: The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington at Islington Museum in St John Street. Unfortunately, they do not allow you to take photos so I cannot show you anything of the museum or the exhibition. Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell lived in Islington from 1959 to 1967.
In 1962 they both received a six-month prison sentence for defacing library books. As well as cutting out and keeping art pictures from books, they altered the cover images and text as a protest against what they considered the “endless shelves of rubbish” in the library. Ironically, the defaced books are today treated as important “works” of Orton and Halliwell. The commentary attempted to persuade us that they somehow influenced Orton’s subsequent development as a writer but that seems a somewhat unlikely claim to me. On the other hand, the spell in prison certainly seems to have had a positive effect on Orton, making him more independent and freeing him from Halliwell’s tutelage.
After visiting the museum, we went across the road to the fine (and listed) late Victorian pub which is currently called The Peasant. It presumably took this name as a reference to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which has associations with Islington and Highbury. Hints that it was not always called that are to be found on the floor and wall inside the pub (see above photos) and also on the outside.
The current pub dates from 1889-90 and was obviously called the George and Dragon. I don’t know when it changed its name and wonder whether this has anything to do with the unveiling in Islington earlier this year of a plaque to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt.
The pub interior is quite pleasant and retains some of its original Victorian features though, inevitably during more than a century, it has suffered modifications. (You may spot the photographer in the above picture.)
There is some nice tiling in the pub, such as this panel on a wall in the gents’ toilet.
This attractive figure reclines on a façade of the old Finsbury Town Hall. Finsbury disappeared as a separate borough in 1965 when it was absorbed into the Borough of Islington. Its handsome town hall, first opened for business in 1895, still exists as a beautiful landmark. For now, it is protected by its listed status and serves other purposes.
We took a bus to Piccadilly and the Royal Academy. Next door is the famous Burlington Arcade, a Regency Arcade lined with rather expensive shops, the sort which do not put prices on the goods in the window. Next door is Burlington House, a 17th century house once owned by Lord George Cavendish. People passing along what was then a lane were inconsiderate enough to throw their oyster shells and other rubbish into the Lord’s garden. The latter’s expensive solution to this annoying problem was to commission Samuel Ware to design the Burlington Arcade in 1819. Though altered, added to several times, and then damaged during WWII, the Arcade continues to thrive. Visitors are required to obey certain rules (no singing, no running, no carrying umbrellas or heavy parcels…) which are enforced by uniformed beadles.
We repaired to the Royal Academy and visited the exhibition of Soviet art and architecture, many of the buildings now in a sad state of disrepair. Tigger liked the designs but my admiration was reserved for the photography of Richard Pare, the photographer who produced most of the images and who has made a name for himself by documenting Soviet Modernist architecture, the fruits of which he has published in a book entitled The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932 (Monacelli Press).
We also managed to see the Degas exhibition, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. Famous for his sculpture La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, Degas painted ballet dancers throughout his career, first painting models holding static poses and then trying to capture their movements. Photography was being developed during this period and some remarkable experiments were performed, allowing for the first time the analysis of the movements of humans and animals. Degas himself eventually bought a camera and as a result of producing images, found new idea to explore in painting. I have to admit that it was the photos and film sequences of these early pioneers of photography that interested me the most.
For a late lunch, we travelled to Covent Garden where there a several vegetarian cafes and restaurants. The first one we tried was packed out, so we walked on to Neal’s Yard where the Wild Food Cafe occupies a first-floor room. Everything on the menu is vegetarian so you can choose freely without worrying what the ingredients are.
Unlike most restaurants, in this one the kitchen is in full view, so you can watch your food being prepared and know that it is being handled hygienically. The dish we chose was sold out and we were asked if we would mind waiting while it was prepared. We were happy to agree. Afterwards, the chef came to apologize for the wait and to ask if the food had been all right, a solicitude that is rare these days.
Neal’s Yard is a fairly small courtyard packed with small shops and eateries. It is a very popular place, however, and presented a lively scene with its sparkly blue Christmas tree and people coming and going or sitting in cafes.
Covent Garden as a whole was lit up for Christmas. The above picture shows Neal Street looking quite pretty in the twilight with coloured lights. Further along in the direction we are looking in the image is the Tea House where I buy the ingredients to make my favourite Russian Caravan tea blend.
On the way to catch a bus for home, we passed through a place called Central Saint Giles. At one entrance stands this object. A plate set in the pavement indicates that it is called William and that it was made by Rebecca Warren. Does it look like a William to you? To me it look more like something that Freya produces when she is suffering from fur balls. Nonsense like this gives art a bad name, especially when it sells for the inflated prices paid for commissioned works by corporates – money they will recover from their customers when not from the tax payer.
Here is a picture of Central Saint Giles, itself. At least no one came out and told us we couldn’t take photos. (They would have had the right as the square is private property albeit with public access.) There could not be a greater contrast with Neal’s Yard. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, of course. There is room in the city for many different environments for as many different purposes. Some, however, are more human than others.
Update November 29th
A review of Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, covering the exhibition more knowledgeably and expertly than I can do, will be found here: A great historic experiment.